To browse through the essential points of this article, here’s a 1-minute version, complete with book references and YouTube case videos:
All of us in the creative industry are continuously striving to be more relevant to our clients, to boost our hard-hit margins, and – above all – to create work that people fall in love with, experience willingly and share forward with gusto; work that wins business and awards.
These are cutthroat times: visibility is restricted to next month, an ever-increasing cadre of players are battling for the money formerly known as the ad budget, and your role as the client’s best friend is on the line. And no, the simple and easy times are never coming back.
But for us with a positive mindset, there are opportunities abound. Clients are in crisis too, and if you truly help a client now, you have a client for life. There’s still a role for the creative agency in leading a brand, but major shifts, along with introspection are required.
To kick off my 2014 – and to get back to writing after a two-year break – I decided to write down my five cents for the coming year based on the experience and viewpoints I have as an executive in a global creative network, working on local, regional and global levels.
Being a big believer in creativity via multidisciplinary thinking, I’ll deliver 3 points on each of Business, Design and Technology, which in my opinion are crucial for everyone in the creative business to grasp, from accounts to creative to management.
I’ll also reference books (+ a blog) that have inspired me around each topic, so you can dive deeper into the subjects. All books are quality stuff and great investments for any professional creative, the kindle versions fetching only a few bucks each.
(No, I don’t get any kickbacks from anybody to promote these specific books)
And in the knowledge economy, aren’t we all creatives?
Get to Your REAL Business
You’re in the business of connecting your client’s brand to the audience. Today this means much more than shovelling ads for media placements as fast as you can, which is ever more work with ever less money. Ads and websites are being commoditised, while building brand equity is still at premium. Here you’re partly in cooperation, partly in competition with consultancies and technology houses. And you need to build your offering accordingly, with different business models for truly creative thinking and work on one hand, and routine design and execution on the other. At present both lines of work are being pushed to the routine mould, and we’re accepting it all too easily. Consultancies do it better.
This naturally requires you to think deeper about also your client’s business. It can be perplexing in its complexity, especially if one person has more than one big client to work on. However, at its root all business is about three things: i) getting more customers, ii) increasing the value of those customers by being more valuable to them and iii) doing all this more efficiently than 24 hours ago. Instead of memorising market share and share-of-voice data, focus on understanding the few key laws and dynamics in your client’s business across the customer cycle. This will help you to create truly business-minded ideas, connecting the brand to the audience with any and all means available.
Further Reading: Business Model Generation
Drive Everything with Data
Information sources used for a purchase decision doubled from 2010 and 2011. In the networked world, all these touch points leave their mark. Collecting data on people’s unvoiced needs and explicit wants is thus easier and more affordable than ever, which leaves us more resources to analyse it for R&D, innovation, marketing and sales. And it pays. Netflix, the company that closed your local Blockbuster, doesn’t divide its offering to 10, 100 or even 1,000 genres; it has 76,897 genres, from ‘Emotional Fight-the-System Documentaries’ to ‘Foreign Satanic Stories from the 1980s’. The company, which some people were ready to bury in 2012, is now at an all-time high after tripling its market value in 2013. Netflix powers their brand by obsessing about data. And so should you, from feeding truly Big Ideas down to effective cookie-based micro-targeting and iterative messaging – online and offline. Basic analytics can be performed on Google Spreadsheets, whereas sophisticated clustering algorithms and neural networks are already at work on off-the-shelf SaaS tools, making the everyman a powerful data scientist.
Use data also to prove the impact of your work. Everything can now be be measured, or at least estimated on a sufficient level and validated or disproved later. If it can’t, it’s probably not relevant to the business. You need to be the one guiding clients who still look at only clicks with direct sales conversion. Utilise attribution models to show the effect across the cycle, from the first touchpoint that doesn’t convert but leaves an impression and a craving for more. Start with Google Think Tools, for example. The trick is not to master all analytics, CRM and monitoring platforms, but being curious about the business and its customers, and getting better at asking the right questions. The brief never contains all relevant data, and you’ll never even get a brief for proactive opportunities. There are however always people around you in media, digital agencies and at the client who’ll get you the numbers if you open your mouth. Prove your impact, and you can improve your margin. It will also make your work constantly better.
Further Reading: Data-Driven Marketing & How to Measure Everything
Use Your (Global) Brain
I’m fortunate to work at TBWA\, where cross-the-border cooperation is better than in many other networks. However, all creative networks with some history are quite rigid by design. We have a big pool of people who are currently locked into local offices and clients. This is because advertising is traditionally culturally sensitive, fairly local and quite personal, and so it remains to certain extent. However, audience behaviour is increasingly tied to interests, lifestyles and values that are independent of location. And the audience shares its passions: marketing successes addressing the needs of these global mega-niches spread throughout the world in 24 hours or less. This is why greatness today is defined by global standards, not local competition within a given product category. That’s also why the skills of our best people are relevant and in need everywhere.
Where you need to learn from IBM, McKinsey, Cisco and the likes, is the ability to tap your skills and knowledge better throughout your whole staff. First, you need to gather concrete knowhow and tools into global best practices, train people in their use and also follow-up on execution. Second, you need to have less of fixed job descriptions and more flexible, skills-based resourcing, even across borders. You need to be able to move brainpower around swiftly to where it’s needed, removing organisational, financial and contractual barriers to creative exchange. Your people, from the latest rookie to the biggest creative rockstar, are an amazing force when harnessed right. Tied down, they’ll under-deliver at best, or go to work outside the ‘creative’ industry for truly creative businesses.
Further Reading: The Future of Management
Balance Help vs. Hype
Where Big Ideas traditionally were largely entertaining or shocking pieces of content with immense stopping power, today’s innovations that steal the audience’s hearts, win their wallets and clear the Cannes and D&AD tables can also be services that inform and help people. Mass communications is less and less useful in a fragmented and uncertain world, where you’re always going to be less trusted than your customer’s best friends and family, or even anonymous reviewers. As a case in point, My colleague set out to buy an SUV from either BMW or AUDI, which were at the time his only consideration group. After pouring through data, reviews and discussions online, he got a Mazda! Top of mind and brand preference via paid media don’t help if the consideration group swells after these phases and other brands provide a better downstream experience via own and earned media.
While answering customers’ questions in real-time is already a given in modern customer service, doing so proactively and in an innovative way still cuts through the clutter. Providing in-depth information in an exciting and easily shareable way for those seeking it, and encouraging them to spread the message can trump distilling the message into three words and carpet-bombing the media with it. The bigger and higher-involvement purchase, the more this is true. Naturally, well orchestrated hype is also needed for success, but when you’re genuinely useful, the hype is also easier to build. At TBWA\Helsinki we always – before going into communications – explore ways to engage the audience, empower or educate them, help them express themselves, make them more connected or to optimise their everyday. This has also led us to our biggest international successes so far.
Further Reading: Youtility
Revive the Power of Story
This one should be self-evident for creative agencies. But as we’ve chased the latest fads and fixes to save our asses, basic storytelling skills have been left undervalued, as also many storytelling experts have gone, either by their own choice or through layoffs. Stories are powerful because they’re so inherently human. The most brilliant metaphor I’ve heard is that stories are ‘the flight simulators of human existence’: they let us enjoy the full breadth and depth of life from euphoria to misery without the social, physical or moral risks attached to even the most outrageous experiences. That’s why we crave them, look for meaning and story in everything, and spin them out of thin air where none are found.
Get back to writing a compelling brand story before anything else and you can easily justify 60 minutes of great film content instead of 60 tweets of crud; data tells us that people enjoy video more than reading. Also in digital service design, a strong and compelling user story inspires the best work; even ‘design fiction’ is on the rise. And don’t forget to utilise storytelling also when selling to clients; they’re confused too, and looking for a business story to believe in. Remember however to back your story with data-driven insights and an engaging roll-out plan. Crafting compelling stories is the thing that sets us apart from consultancies, analytics houses and technologists; let’s build on that strength and not downplay it.
Further Reading: The Storytelling Animal
Have a System
Creative people often revel in the misconception that creativity flourishes best in a boundless environment and with an unlimited budget. ‘We don’t have enough budget to be really creative’ is a commonly heard complaint. It’s also the biggest lie in the industry. In fact, many of the most creative people in history are known to having worked through poverty and famine. They’re also often famous for being furiously methodological about their work, repeating the same routines and processes meticulously to reach their greatest creative heights. And if DARPA, arguably the most ingeniously creative institution in the modern world can have a process, an ‘inner algorithm’ as they call it, that has helped them come up with the microwave oven, the Internet and stealth bombers, what makes your shop so special that your business couldn’t be formulated.
Naturally, the financial calamity of 2008, the ensuing chaos and the search for the creative agency’s new soul has been making systematisation hard. However now’s the time to lay down the focus, guidelines and checklists for your agency for the foreseeable future. Doing this leads to better work as out-of-the-box thinking is enforced, protects your margin as workflows are more predictable, and makes your people happier as they’re working within a framework rather than being in constant free-fall. I’ve done better work in two hours with Oflow and Ideo Method Cards that force me to think outside the box, than in two days with free association, which ultimately is all about relying on past experiences and staying in the comfort zone. Here you need to take into account especially: i) what’s the core value you’re delivering, ii) how to create a formula that’s broad enough to inspire true creativity around this value, but also iii) tight enough to ensure that projects deliver great work for all touch points with built-in measurability. We have our own FLOW for this purpose. Do you?
Further Reading: Lateral Thinking
Know Your Platforms
As people, things, places and data want to become connected and start conversing, everything from your multi-million dollar web-page to an individual to a city park is but a node in the network with equal communication potential. In the network, it’s platforms that bring about communication democracy, lay down barriers, aggregate disconnected players in fragmented industries and unlock new value from spare resources and user-generated content. Deeply understanding your most relevant platforms is therefore key to winning in the marketplace. Even the Mars rover Curiosity, an inanimate object millions of miles away on the red planet got Twitter weeping as it sent its last tweet from the red planet; it had created a bond with its audience by smart utilisation of the platform. Regulators might still try to protect the linear-model incumbents, as in the case of New York Hotels vs. Airbnb, or French Taxis vs. Uber, but platforms will prevail in the end. So be their closest friend.
Inventing your own platform is slow and resource-heavy; learning which existing platform to use for which job and how is fast and light in comparison. Youtube is good for telling a six-minute brand story, but there are also platforms for the six-second brand story: Vine and Instagram videos. There are differences you need to know within platforms too; Facebook noted recently that paid social ads on-feed generate 49 times more clicks than banners on the sidebar; that’s your money back 49 times faster. As platforms become easier to use and more powerful at the same time, specialists are needed less and less for running everyday things and everyone becomes responsible for results. Platforms will be a required skill as all companies become technology companies and platforms become not just a tool for digital marketing, but finally eat up the whole world we live and do business in. And as we’re talking about platforms, in case you didn’t notice, mobile use already exceeded TV consumption. So in 2014, if it’s not mobile, it doesn’t exist.
Further Reading: Platform Thinking -blog & The Age of the Platform
Get from ‘Digital’ to ‘Technology’
As you create solutions above and beyond advertising and communications, you need to update your skills and know-how and get from ‘digital marketing’ to ‘brand technologies’. This requires new mindsets and new areas to cover in your newsfeed. It also requires you to get up close and personal with engineers, technologists and inventors, and bring them to your inner circle as advisors, freelancers and permanent staff. At the Helsinki offices, the most valued work we’ve done and participated in in recent years wouldn’t have materialised without having hardcore technology guys involved already in the creative process.
Fortunately, getting to technology business has never been easier. A 3D printer doesn’t make you an engineer, but we’ve noticed that just having it around starts inspiring a whole new set of ideas from your whole creative payroll. Also when outsourced, affordable prototyping enables companies big and small start exploring outside the digital marketing box, in things such as wearable technologies and mobile accessories, from staff badges to smart watches to intelligent clothing. As connected technologies cover the world, the ‘true convergence’ technology insiders have been talking about happens, leading to the blurring of business and leisure, things and people, locations and time. To ride this wave, you need to be in the technology business, not just digital business.
Further Reading: What Technology Wants
Think and Work in Real-Time
Our job used to end when the ads were live in the media. Today’s marketplace in contrast is a 24/7 experiment, with always-on content, always-on services, always-on monitoring and always-on development. Or so it should be at its best. Amazon conducts tens of user experiments per day, validating and disproving assumptions about their customers, and tracks, records and shares its learnings in order to deliver the best possible experience, and get the most bang for their buck. You also need to think about our work as a constant process loop, not a project, and convince your clients of the benefits therein. You can’t put a deadline for being awesome, you need to build towards it every single day.
You also need to be more curious about what happens to your content in the market and how people react and respond to it, and most importantly, how it makes them behave (or not). Real-time marketing is about using data analytics and automation platforms within a structured process flow to shift content in real time according to recipient and context. We need this mindset to drive better results and better work, not just for the next campaign next month, but for this one already today, tweaking as we go. We also need to get down to building and testing things faster, not after months-long rounds of endless approvals and committee rounds, but after the first week-long development sprint, as agile startups do.
Further Reading: Growth Hacker Marketing
The Bottom Line: Innovate or Die
You can be an advertising agency. You can be a marketing agency. You can even be a design agency. But in 2014 and beyond, you won’t be a creative agency without radical innovation. Together with storytelling masterminds, entrepreneurs, innovators and inventors are the creative force for 2014. You either embrace and empower them, or you lose them.
Like standing in the middle of a merry-go-round, change can seem relatively glacial and controllable from the top. But being in the seats at the edges whisks you around at a dizzying speed. As devices and people at the fringes become smarter, innovation happens more and more at the edges, where the pace of change is always greater than at the centre.
Equip your people with an innovation mindset and motivate them to reach out to unfamiliar territories, while keeping track of the creative process – and you will be rewarded.
Further Reading: Lean Startup (also Lean UX & Lean Analytics) + 52 Tools to Innovate Like a Startup on Slideshare
Thanks especially to posts by Amir Kassaei and JP Rangaswami for kicking my mind into gear for this post.